With both visitation and pride in the national parks up this year thanks to the National Park Service's centennial, how the incoming Trump administration will view the parks and other federal lands is drawing attention, and some concern, from onlookers in the parks community.
After all, President-elect Donald Trump is a businessman who takes pride in his own edifices and is not known for admiring scenery in the National Park System. He has no deep political background to draw upon in forming his administration, instead relying on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is running his transition team, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, and his children for guidance.
Rumors abounded Wednesday about whom Trump might choose for Interior secretary, with speculation ranging from Forrest Lucas, the 74-year-old co-founder of Lucas Oil, to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and outgoing U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming. There also was concern among National Park Service employees that a hiring freeze is coming in the near future.
While it is, of course, too soon to draw any firm conclusions, some of those contacted for this story expressed concern that the federal government's work in the climate change arena will suffer, that little priority will be given to attracting a broader, more diverse visitation to the National Park System, and that it's unlikely President-elect Trump would use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments.
"It (the Antiquities Act) could be a way for him to show his authority. On the other hand, he may push for abolition of the Antiquities Act," said Richard West Sellars, who spent his Park Service career as a historian and wrote the highly acclaimed Preserving Nature in the National Parks, A History. "References to Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the Act — and his promotion of preservation in general — may help. I should mention that Nixon signed several environmental acts, apparently because he thought it would help his career and his standing with the public."
Some see the incoming president's background as a businessman as potentially beneficial to the parks.
"Donald Trump understands tourism and leisure expenditures. He will understand that federal lands and waters can and should be better economic engines," responded Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, when contacted by the Traveler.
At the same time, seeing economic value in the parks could be a double-edged sword.
"I think it’s certain now that a non-careerist will be appointed as director of the NPS (that probably would have been likely even under Hillary Clinton) and that could have a significant effect on internal policy and direction," said Bill Wade, a member of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks whose 30-year NPS career saw him honored with the Department of the Interior's Meritorious Service Award. "I think we can expect another 'assault' on the NPS Management Policies with the intent of reducing protection (preservation) and increasing recreation and exploitive uses — at least up to the point that there is enough public reaction to brunt this assault (as happened under Gale Norton/Fran Mainella)."
Mr. Wade was referring to the attempt under the administration of George W. Bush a decade ago to rewrite the Management Policies in such a way as to open the National Park System to more activities. The draft rewrite was seen by many as a direct threat to the National Park Service's preservation mandate as outlined in the Organic Act that created the agency a century ago. In the end, the draft was tossed out and replaced with an update that underscored that mandate.
"This is a significant victory for Americans who care deeply about their national parks and want them preserved for their children and grandchildren and not, as some have been advocating, turned into drivers for the economic gain of a few and opened up for rampant motorized recreational uses," Mr. Wade said back in 2006 when the draft was tossed. "We commend the National Park Service career professionals for standing up to the pressure and defeating the earlier drafts foisted on the NPS by political operatives in the Department of the Interior."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Vice President of Government Affairs Kristen Brengel expressed hope that the Republican and the new Congress would see great value in the national parks and work to improve their budget.
"National parks represent who we are as a nation, from iconic landscapes to important history and culture. And we must all come together to ensure they are protected, just as we’ve done for the last century. That means tackling head-on the many challenges that currently face our parks," she said. "Places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Ellis Island are in desperate need of repairs, and we implore the House and Senate to work together in the coming weeks to better fund them in the next spending bill, to pass the Centennial Challenge legislation that benefits parks, and ensure important pieces of our nation’s history like Ocmulgee and Petersburg are protected.
"The president-elect has spoken often about the need to invest in our nation’s infrastructure. With $12 billion in needed repairs, our national parks are a perfect place to focus these efforts," she added. "For too long, our national parks have been subject to efforts by officials to weaken or eliminate the very protections our parks depend on. It is critical for them to resist these pressures. We cannot betray one of the very things that unites America: our national parks.”
Dr. Sellars made passing reference to the Republican's vanity in discussing how he might want the parks managed.
"I have not heard anything about the Park Service or the parks from Trump or his organization. This suggests that they don’t have a lot of interest," said the historian. "But I would guess that Trump wants to leave a legacy, and the parks could be part (a popular part) of it. The legacy factor may be the NPS’s best card to play."
During the presidential campaign, the national parks never received more than passing mention. However, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were on record as opposing the sale or transfer of federal lands (an issue restricted to U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, not the National Park System). Additionally, according to a National Geographic article, Mr. Trump in January 2016 told an interviewer "that he would not reduce the percentage of the federal budget dedicated to maintaining public lands."
Dwight Pitcaithley, who was chief historian for the Park Service for a decade and now teaches at New Mexico State University, also expressed concern about the new administration looking at the parks as economic engines and managed as such.
"As far as I know, Trump doesn't have any thoughts on parks. That said, it would seem in keeping with his proclivities that he would want them to make as much money as they can and be rated on that standard," said Dr. Pitcaithley. "I think it is safe to say that we really don't have a clue about what he might do except for his comments on climate change being a hoax. I don't know that he has made any comments about public lands of any kind.
"Whatever he thinks, I think the outlook for the NPS over the next four years is quite dim."